Hesperides Organica

My Story, Part II

Practicing Farming

I get it, I do.  We live in a world with a short attention span...5 seconds, a headline or no more than 140 characters.  So, when people ask me, “Are you organic?”  After pulling out a few more hairs and screaming inside my head,  I can honestly answer, “Yes! I am.  Are you?”  And “no,” I am not, legally speaking (I have not paid the USDA to use the term which they own) nor will I ever be (if you're confused at this point, please read My Story, Part I which explains more fully).

I've been at this long enough that it's almost hard to remember the beginning or how it all began. But I do remember.  We were still living in North Haledon, NJ and we were on one of my wild goose chases looking at some land to buy near Hunter Mountain in New York.  It was a little A-Frame on a few acres but wildly impractical and right next to a few other A-Frames also on a few acres.

“Why drive two hours to sit in a cabin and stare at your neighbors?” my husband said, practically. “We can do that right here in North Haledon.”

He was right, of course.  But I was home all day with two little boys.  In New Jersey.  Which has the most beautiful springs but no open sky.  Which I missed after growing up in long-gone prairies of Illinois.  On the way back from the A-frame, we stopped for gas at a rest way on the New York Throughway near New Paltz.  There was a hippie-looking guy selling some strawberries and sugar snap peas.  I bought a quart of each for what seemed to be a lot of money (and no, they weren't “organic”).  We each tasted a strawberry and devoured the rest.  Same with the sugar snap peas.  I had never tasted such sweet produce!  It was far better than anything I had tasted from the “organic” vegetables and fruit that I was having delivered to my house each week (see My Story, Part I).

I was hooked.

I didn't really know it yet.  But I did know a few things:

• I knew I loved vegetables.  

• I knew I loved to grow them. (I had just begun growing my first bed of vegetables).

• I knew I loved to eat them.  (And I still do.  They are my staple of every meal).

• I knew I loved the challenge of growing them.  (I didn't know how much I didn't know).   

• I knew I loved eating the ones from my garden. (Fortunately, I happen to love zucchini.  My most successful vegetable).

• I knew I wanted a CSA.  

Fast forward a couple of years and we had moved to Warwick to a house on three acres (you can still see our neighbors, but not from the back yard). I began growing a large garden starting with two beds and adding several more.  After spending a lot of time reading books, watching YouTube videos on gardening and lots of trial and error (seemed like more errors than anything), I knew that soil fertility was the key.  But how best to achieve it?

1. I double dug several of our raised beds (one bed was so wide and deep, I could have buried myself in it and nearly did).  I laid out several weeks worth of the Sunday New York Times to create some more beds.  I composted every last coffee ground, eggshell and apple core (and still do...some habits are hard to break). I had my husband haul several trailers of very ripe manure from some local dairy farms (the worms were incredible in these beds!)  I tried the “mulch” method of Ruth Stout but my husband stopped me short of gardening in the nude.  I gathered up materials and mixed together my own fertilizer from a recipe of Steve Solomon (Gardening When It Counts). I spent a day with Elaine Ingham and learned about compost tea and looked through a microscope at microbes.  I even made my own compost tea brewer using a 5-gallon bucket and a few items from the pet store for fish tanks (and still use it today for small scale stuff...that is, my home garden).  I yearned to have soil like Terra Preta (this was before I realized it was just a mile away) and built a device (the two-drum method) to make my own charcoal (a method I since learned is called pyroloysis, i.e. breaking down the chemical structure of wood under high temperature in the absence of air).

Note: I never even gave charcoal a thought before this. All I knew about charcoal was the chemical-laden Kingsford. Did you know there used to be careers making & selling charcoal? A collier.  Let me tell you, it's more art than science. If you mess up, all you're left with is a pile of ash.   I did manage to make enough to put in some of my garden beds.  I'm not sure if it was art or science.  Or maybe just dumb luck! I'll take that!

During this time I was also reading a lot of books about nutrition and diet (the list is very long but a few noteworthy ones: Nourishing Traditions, Ominivore's Dilemma, The Rosedale Diet, The Paleo Solution, Four Season Harvest, The Potential of Herbs as a Cash Crop,The Art & Science of Low Carbohydrate Living (my favorite) and listened to many podcasts of Jimmy Moore's “livinlavidalowcarb.”  

Grains & Microbes

I was most struck by two things:  grains are (one of) our greatest downfalls – both in terms of health and civilization.  And secondly, microbes are our salvation – personally and planetarily.  The “grains” part was a relief.  After reading The Long Emergency (see My Story Part I), and trying to be self sufficient, grains was the hardest part.  How can I grow, harvest and process wheat?  Or rye?  Or buckwheat ? (easy to grow, difficult to harvest and process small scale). Or even enough corn to make meal without a large combine?  Plus, I never really liked cooking them – brown rice, millet, barley, quinoa (yes, I know it's not technically a grain, by why even use fakes?) or pasta (Barry Sears of The Zone ruined the whole pasta thing for me when he said that to the body, you may as well eat Snickers bars with marinara sauce – same effect).

I understood what Elaine Ingham was talking about. Soil. Microbes.  But when Richard Alan Miller said, “It's not what we eat.  It's what we feed.”  The gut. Microbes. The “gut microbiome.”  A light bulb went off.   “As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul...” Hermes Trismegistus. It's all the same.  We're all in this together.  What you do to the least of us, you do to me. Take care of the little things and all else will follow.  

That's what I was doing in the garden:  not growing vegetables, feeding the soil. Taking care of the little things. If you get that right, all else follows.  And if you get it right for your body, same thing, health follows.  That's why it's so important to eat locally grown produce (local microbes!), seasonally, (tomatoes are best in August) and humbly (cabbage, dandelion and Swiss chard are some of our most nutritious vegetables).

Around this time I was volunteering on a large, 800-acre non-profit organic farm in the Black Dirt.   There were great plans for this property.  Unfortunately, this was when the Banking Crisis of 2008 hit and any funding (aka loans) came to an abrupt halt.  Nothing “big” was planted but I still managed to  plant some vegetables on five acres or so.  (I even bought my first two pieces of farm equipment from Tractor Supply Company:  a “middle-blaster” which was used to mark the rows for planting and a “tiller” which we used to till the weeds between the rows). Both of which we still have and use.

That first year growing in the Black Dirt was perfect.  Even though we got a late start (we didn't plant the first seed until the second week of June and finally finished by the 4th of July), everything grew, perfectly, wildly.  “No bug pressure,” said the guy who I was working with.  I didn't really know what that meant.  Yeah, we definitely had some “weed pressure.”  I figured that part out. No many how many times I would weed the rows by hand, I couldn't keep up.  I was Lucy in the weeds, alone.  Harvesting was more like hunting and gathering.  (Kill the weeds with a machete and pluck any ready vegetable).  But it was so fun!  And satisfying.

I was hooked. On the Black Dirt. And long rows of vegetables.

I knew I could never go back.  To my little garden of raised beds.  Here I was with Terra Preta under an expansive big sky!  With more vegetables than I knew what to do with (more than I could possibly eat and freeze for the winter; more than I could give away to my family and neighbors).  I  wanted a community. Of friends.  Of farmers. Of vegetables.  Of microbes.  Of meaning. Something real.  Something meaningful.

In the fall of that year, a small, 8-acre parcel of Black Dirt with a barn and well came on the market. The same day my husband and I put in an offer for $100 more than they were asking and Bought the Farm (some days, it really feels that way!).   Soon after we bought the field between the three fields of our 8-acre farm.  And then, in some twist of fate, there were two acres in the middle of the 800 acres on the other side of Pulaski Highway that were never transferred from the original owner to the non-profit.  We bought those two too.

And while we focused our efforts on the original acres (see My Story Part I) we continued to buy more acres surrounding the two acres as the land was sold off. (We eventually ended up with 100 acres total).  Meanwhile, we were up scaling our efforts from the raised beds to the 8 acres.  We still used the compost tea that we made in our 5-gallon buckets.  But it was clear that we needed something more.  We used some other organic fertilizers to varying degrees of success. I had always been intrigued by Bio dynamics, “a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, food production and nutrition,” the brainchild of Rudolf Steiner, founder of anthroposophy (my youngest son had attended a Waldorf School in Warwick for two years.  It wasn't perfect.  Nothing is.  We pulled him out then it was discovered that the building had asbestos. But I knew I has  piece of the puzzle.  Of life.

At the same time, we discovered a company that makes products based on bio dynamics. It's an entire system which is applied to the soil (and even seedlings) to improve the microbial activity.  Each year, we notice the improvement in soil and in the quality of our vegetables.  

In fact, the vegetables almost taste sweet!

And many of our members have noticed:

This has been the best year yet!”

“You've spoiled me.  I can never eat lettuce out of a bag again. This is the best lettuce I have ever tasted!”

“Each year, the vegetables get better.”

“My three-year-old daughter has been asking me for more kohlrabi.  My friend couldn't believe she even knew what it was, much less ask for it!”

“I've never had such good eggplant.  It's so moist and meaty.”

“I never knew how good greens could be;  spinach, kale and Swiss chard.  I've even learned to love collard & beet greens.”

“Your sweet corn is so good.  I went to the local farmer's market to buy more, but it wasn't nearly as good as yours.”

“My son, who would never eat cauliflower, asked for more.”

“Thanks to your farm and the CSA, my husband and I have eaten more vegetables than ever.  We've learned to try (and love) new vegetables. I can't wait until next season.”

“The CSA has changed the way I eat.”

“I love not having to shop at Whole Foods for half of the year.  Can't you do a winter CSA?”

My tag line used to be: “The next best thing to growing your own.  And a whole lot easier.”  But I think I have to amend that.  After years of experimenting and searching and practicing (practice does make perfect!), I humbly think that we might possibly have some of the best vegetables on earth! And I don’t say that lightly.

The proof is in the pudding.  Dig some of your own beds.  Compost all your vegetable waste.  Make your own charcoal and compost tea. (I’d be happy to give you some free advice).  Install a 5-foot fence 12 inches deep.  Plant your seeds.  Tend your seedlings.  Keep away the bugs.  Spend your weekends weeding.  Fight off the critters.  Finally, harvest, eat and compare.

And get back to me.  I know you’ll join! Besides being easier, our vegetables just taste better, thanks to the Black Dirt.


Enjoy!   I know I do!